August 9, 2015 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Over the last few months, we have had a lot of newcomers here at St. John’s. Some of them I am getting to know pretty well. Others seem remarkably friendly when they shake my hand on the way out the door. Among our newcomers are several people who have come to the Episcopal Church from other, more conservative denominations. As I hear from them about their experience of that transition, a familiar conversation keeps repeating itself. I ask what they think about the Episcopal Church, and they reply, “I really like it here. I feel at home at St. John’s, but it seems like something is missing. I’m still trying to figure out what Episcopalians believe.”
It’s a fair criticism. What exactly do Episcopalians believe? We pride ourselves on welcoming everyone. We define ourselves as the church that doesn’t tell you what to think but allows you to think for yourself. In our efforts to be hospitable, we have opened our theology as wide as our doors. “There’s room for everyone in here,” we say. We don’t pretend that we have a monopoly on all the right answers, and we trust that this is a place where you can find your own. But I worry that we’ve worked so hard on welcoming everyone to God’s table that we’ve forgotten to pay attention to what is being served. By placing so much emphasis on hospitality, we’ve lost our focus on the real reason for being here in the first place. In making sure that everyone has a seat at the table, we’ve neglected to tell them that sitting at the table means feasting on the Bread of Life.
There’s really no easy way around today’s gospel lesson. In this short passage, Jesus says some things that manage to make everyone upset. “I am the bread of life,” he said, “I have come down from heaven to give life to the world.” But he doesn’t stop there. “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him…Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died, but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” In other words, Jesus said, “I’m it. I’m the real deal. I’ve got something that no one else has ever been able to give you—not even Moses. It’s eternal life, and you can’t have it unless God brings you to me because I’m the only way you’re ever going to get it.” It’s that kind of “my way or the highway” language that we open-minded Episcopalians try to avoid at all costs. But it’s worse than that: those words aren’t coming from the mouth of a fundamentalist preacher but from the mouth of Jesus himself! How are we going to deal with this? Are we going to ignore these words and preach on a different lesson altogether? Or will we find a way to embrace that which makes us distinctly Christian—namely, Jesus.
We believe that we have good news for the whole world because we believe that God loves everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live or what you’ve done or what you believe or where you go to church or even if you go to church—God loves you exactly the same as everyone else. And we base that belief on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his earthly ministry, Jesus demonstrated God’s love for everyone—sinner or saint, rich or poor, insider or reject. But the powers of this world—which is to say us and people like us—rejected that message of love and nailed it to the cross. Still, God’s love was bigger than our hate, and he raised his Son on the third day in order to free us from the consequences of own behavior—to set us free from fear, from punishment, and even from death itself. Because of Jesus Christ—and only because of Jesus Christ—we know that there is nothing we can do to alienate ourselves from God and God’s love. But is that the message that we are proclaiming to the world?
For the most part, we are nice, warm, and friendly people. And nice, warm, and friendly is a good start, but how far will that get us? We are an inviting, welcoming, and accepting congregation. And inviting, welcoming, and accepting is a good way to get people in the door, but then what? There a lots of people and places and organizations that will pat you on the back and tell you that you look pretty and pretend that your ideas are good ones, and most of them don’t make you show up on Sunday morning in order to hear it. We aren’t in the affirmation business. This isn’t about hospitality. People don’t come to church looking for a nice way to spend some time on the weekend. People come to church because they want food for their souls, and soul food is exactly what we have to give them.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That is very, very good news indeed. We have a savior who loves us exactly the way we are. We have a savior who shows us that God’s love has no limits. We have a savior who can set us free from guilt and shame and fear. We have a savior who can satisfy once and for all the deepest longings of our soul. You can’t get that anywhere else. So why would we focus on anything else?
Why are you here? Why did you come to church today? If you’re only here because you want to spend time with some nice, friendly people, you should go somewhere else. You can do better. There are nicer and friendlier people out there. And, if you’re only here because we we’re a welcoming, accepting place that takes all sorts of people, then, again, you should go somewhere else. I promise that there are plenty of organizations more welcoming and accepting than we are. There is only one reason to be here. There is only one reason to come to church—because you want to feed on the Bread of Life, the one who has come down from heaven to give life to the world. We are here because Jesus Christ came and lived and died and rose again so that we might have full, abundant, and never-ending life in the loving presence of God and God’s kingdom. We have come to hear the good news of the gospel. We have come looking to satisfying the eternal longing of our souls. Let this be the place where you can find it. Let that be the only thing that we are about.